Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.

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“Notes” from the “Season”!!!

For long as I remember Chennai or for the romantics – Madras had 2 seasons – Summer (for almost 340 days) and the “Music Season” for a month straddling December and January.  But since the 90’s, “Season” has come to mean the Music Season and is quietly giving Chennai its place under the Sun due to its uniqueness and unparalleled virtues in the entire globe.  The last time I was in Madras during the Season was I think in the late 80’s before the evolution happened. So when I got an opportunity this time over to be in Madras last week, though just for a couple of days, I was excited and was keen to record for myself the notes emanating from the streets, sabhas, well practically from all over!

I don’t think there is any other geography in the world where there is such a confluence of artists and their music as in Madras during the Season. Such is the carpet bombing of concerts of artists of varying hue that one is spoilt for choice.  Since I was there only for 2 days I didn’t face that problem and had to pick up from what was available on the calendar. Which is made simple these days with the many “Season apps” on your smart phones where you can search by date, time and the artist. So there I was on the 1st day of the New Year at the Music Academy at 9.00 am for the 1st programme of 2015 (surprisingly Free Entry) – A Flute recital by Shashank another child prodigy of our times.

Academy

While I leave it to the musically erudite to write about the nuances of the Gambira Vani ragam and Evari Mata Kriti,..,… he played that day, let me stick to the interesting things happening around the Season itself.

The Season is unique in many ways. One shouldn’t be surprised if

  • you get to see a packed house at 9.00 am on the New Year day that too for a typical old world Classical music programme!!!
  • in what has become a sponsor driven entertainment industry, you see a clean stage as I saw that day at the Academy without any ugly sponsor branding elements
  • outside the concert hall, you see somebody talking loudly (no surprises here 😉 ) on the mobile phone about the gradations in the rendition of O Ranga Sayi in Kamboji raga by so and so artist which he just heard
  • you see an elderly wishing well – (Nanna Varuve) to a young lad may be all of 10 who would have just finished his concert ofcourse in the morning slot
  • you catch many young things taking notes assiduously while the concert is going on and discussing among themselves in what beat the song was played or such technical stuff in between the programme yes mostly in Yankee accent 😄
  • the mama sitting ahead of you rudely turns around and scoffs at you, “We have come to hear his music and not yours” 😒.  This is when you slightly got carried away by the performance and started humming along in your lesser mortal voice!
  • you see elderly men during the concerts displaying emotions as if they achieved multiple orgasms 😃 😃
  • mobile phones don’t ring at all during a 2 hour concert or you don’t get to see people talking on the phone during the programme like we are used to in movie halls!!!
  • the person sitting next to you appears to be in deep slumber but wakes up at the right times to clap his hands to express his appreciation 😃
  • you repeatedly hear words like Baley Baley and Besh BeshTamil words which have otherwise disappeared from everyday lingo
  • you heard that folks attend concerts not just for the taste of music but also for that of the food served at the Sabha canteens. So don’t be surprised also if you see ads in newspapers prominently displaying the name of the caterers alongside the day’s programme during the Season. Caterers like Pattappa (Padmanabhan at the Academy) and “Mountbatten Mani” (what a name 🙂 ) have become brands in their own right.
  • you observe the sabha canteen food getting discussed and also reviewed in the magazines doing the Season beat. “The Canteen Kaapi was better than the Kaapi (ragam) rendered by the singer” was a popular line of late music critic and sharp wit Suppudu. Today don’t be amused if you hear – “innikku kacherila rasamey illa” (No rasam in today’s concert). It could very well be about the canteen menu rather than the concert 😃 😃
  • you mistook a concert hall to be a godown of silk saree clad mannequins 😃. For, in these days of Televised concerts (Marghazhi Maha Utsavam in Jaya TV, Chennaiyil Thiruvaiyaru in Vijay TV,…) mainly sponsored by Silk Saree vendors is it a crime if you want to look good on camera and where the programme is beamed across continents???
  • the media completely misses the mass “Gharwapsi” which happens every year in Chennai during the Season!  I’m talking of the visiting NRIs, PIOs, Pravasis and what have you who religiously come back to their roots in Chennai to revel in the Season’s proceedings. In the process also fill up all the hotels, service apartments,.. in and around the music catchment area!
  • you happen to catch bureaucrats, police officers,.. who are otherwise stiff necked wearing a relaxed look in Veshtis occupying front rows in sabhas and catching up with the latest in music!
  • the hardcore Carnatic music notes which hitherto heard only within the hallowed walls of sabhas like the Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha,.. are now heard even in slums that too during the Season. Yes, in an attempt to take the Carnatic music outside the ring of a certain elite – few musicians like T.M.Krishna, Unnikrishnan,.. have for the 1st time come together to stage concerts in and around areas where fisherfolk live. Read more about this novel effort – Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival here.

Carnatic music has not transcended class barriers” has been a refrain of many including musicians like T.M.Krishna. I don’t think this was result of some grand Design or for that matter by Default. It could be due to plain exposure or lack of it. In that sense the global awareness of the Season thanks to the NRIs on the one side and taking the “Season to seashore” as in Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival on the other side could help in transcending all barriers I feel or so one hopes. In fact this was the dream of one of India’s finest filmmakers K.Balachander (KB) who in one of his many hit films – Sindhu Bhairavi weaved this thought of taking Carnatic music to the masses. KB who passed away few weeks ago must be a happy man to see his dream taking actual shape.

On that note,”Season’s Greetings” and until the next Season, have an awesome year 🎵🎵

111204-Sunday Mag-Chennai Music season Toon Credit:Keshav

Mandolin loses its “Middle C” 😢

It’s about 10 days now since music lost one of its great ambassadors – Uppalapu Shrinivas and we, a musical genius. In these times of 24*7 news churning, the sudden, untimely demise of Shrinivas has already moved out of the headlines. In the last one week, “Modi” has submerged the sounds of the “ManDOlIn”. That the King of Mandolin is not around anymore has still not sunk in me which explains this rather late obit piece – a very basic attempt to keep his memory alive by an ordinary remote rasika.

I don’t have to crank my memory hard to recall the first time I heard Shrinivas live. It was around the year 78-79 in Trichy. He was may be all of 10 years and had come to play as part of the Kumbabishekam celebrations of the majestic Rock fort temple there. In that one week long festival there were music, dance and drama programmes every evening. Giving him august company were veterans like Thiruvizha Jayashankar (Nadaswaram) and the late Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan (Violin). I had just read about this young kid who was making waves in the Carnatic circuit in Madras and wherever he went. I am not sure but may be that was his first major concert in Trichy. The memories I have is of a boy clad in spotless white Kurta and Pyjama with a paal vadiyum mugam (extremely innocent face) taking the stage with an instrument resembling an electric guitar which later I was told was a mandolin. Till then I never had seen a mandolin or for that matter a western instrument being used to play classical Carnatic music. Little did I realize then that it was just the beginning of many a ground breaking things this lad was going to accomplish. His dad was there right behind him helping him with the sruti (sur) and also with the much needed energy boosters from a thermos flask.  Every now and then as his little fingers swayed with effortless ease on the strings, he used to see his dad’s face as if seeking for some kind of approval or encouragement.  Which his dad provided with an appreciating smile.  On the other side the crowd started gathering in huge numbers and with every kriti/ piece he played, accorded the approval and appreciation with raucous applause. After every piece he used to do a big Namaste to the crowd, constantly reminding us of his humble upbringing. The ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye’ piece of Bharathiyar which he played at the end of the programme still resonates in my ears.  That day it signalled to me the arrival of a ‘Chinnanchiru’ genius on the music scene whom I started following very closely though from a distance.

19IN_MADOLIN_PIC_1_2115510g

After that, I listened to him live in few more programmes and saw him grow taller rapidly, in musical stature that is. Accolades followed. Appreciation from fellow but senior musicians like Dr.Balamuralikrishna, Dr.T.K. Murthy (he famously removed his ring and put it on Shrinivas’s finger in the midst of a programme in which he was accompanying Shrinivas on the mridangam),… ensued.  As I moved out of Trichy for higher educational pursuits, opportunities to witness his concerts became rare. And there came the audio cassette albums and CD labels to the rescue to be in touch with his musical notes.  From “Mandolin Solo” to “Shrinivas Vs Shrinivas” to “Mandoin Trio” and his “fusion experiments” my cupboard craved for more and more space to store his releases.  By now Shrinivas to Mandolin became akin to Xerox in photocopiers. Mandolin = Shrinivas and vice versa.

The last I saw him live was in Mumbai couple of years ago and that too in a rare programme with Shankar Mahadevan, Vikku Vinayagaram and Sivamani.  He still looked the next door lad. But the way he played the mandolin was as if the instrument was a lifelong slave of him. He kept smiling at his co-artists but this time without any need to seek their approval. On the other hand it was Shankar who was falling at Shrinivas’ feet (in jest though) trying to match his artistry with the fingers with his own vocal chords.  From a higher octave to lower octave, music was just flowing. In Mumbai I keep ruing the fact that most of the classical concerts happen in week days making it difficult to make it.  But this programme happened on a weekend and today I am glad that I got to attend this one.

In one of his interviews very early as a kid a shy Shrinivas said that Bahudari was his favourite ragam.  I am not sure if it remained his most favourite till that fatal lever failure consumed his life.  In that most famous piece in Bahudari“Brova Barama Raghurama”Thyagaraja asks Lord Rama“Will protecting this frail Thyagaraja prove an intolerable burden on you and tax you???” I’m wondering if as fans we should have asked this to the Almighty many times over about Shrinivas. May be he would have been with us today.

As a prodigy in the strictest definition of that term, Shrinivas was never late in arriving at the musical scene. But in life, it is numbing to realize that he became “late” so early in life leaving an empty space in the hearts of his well-wishers. If I say that with his untimely demise, Mandolin has lost its “Middle C” and Carnatic music its “Adhara Shadja” it may be termed as gross exaggeration. But the feeling is one of that. Prayers for his soul to Rest In Peace. And his music to continue reverberating.

Listen to Shrinivas’s “Entharo Mahanubavulu”here.

Madras 375 – Not out!!!

HappyBD MAdras

I’m not a Madras boy. Not born there.  Didn’t quite spend my formative childhood years there.  Have not worked for long in that city as well. But have been frequenting Madras as a visitor since the late 80’s enough to suffer from “Madrasitis” 🙂  Ergo, as Madras, the oldest city the British built in India celebrated its 375th birthday last week I couldn’t help recount the different vignettes imprinted in me around Madras. I am aware that at best that can only be an inside view of an outsider, nonetheless an honest one I promise.

I have very foggy memories of the first 4-5 years I spent as a child in the 70’s.  So, nothing much really to recall except that we were staying few minutes away from Luz corner at Mylapore which is today stereotyped as the cultural nerve centre of Chennai.  So my account is all from the 2 years I spent in Madras when I worked in the 90’s and the few days I spend on and off every year mostly on business and at times otherwise.

Conservatism was at the heart of Madras. Keeping a low profile, being simple, not showing off and to some extent being subservient were drilled into as essential behavioural requirements for children. This drill over a period of time got into the genes and brought up Madras as a quintessential traditional society. A talented A.R.Rahman or a Superstar Rajinikant or a brilliant Maniratnam all products of this Madras would always be grounded even while flying high in their respective careers.  This conservatism had its share of problems as well.  Bachelors would find it difficult to get accommodation. Survival in Madras for outsiders if you didn’t know the language was a nightmare.  The opening up of the stock market in the 90’s and later the IT boom slowly brought what is today a cosmopolitan cut to the once traditional Madras. But there were other good things which didn’t have to wait for long. The beaches for one.

The Edward Elliot’s beach in Madras just few kilometres away from the more famed Marina beach was not as popular but had a quaint appeal to it.  With not many shops or eateries as it is today, the beach was clean and was a jogger’s delight. The sea with its characteristic rough and not so rough demeanour was inviting to even a diehard hydrophobic. As a child, standing in the water and getting lashed by the waves was an exciting pastime. Little one realized then that it would be the same even when you grew up. The mobile Aavin Van booth at the beach served the best fresh flavoured milk in town then.  The Marina beach ahead had a different flavor. More crowded, more eateries, more noise and more love birds hiding behind boats and under fishing nets only to be discovered by young boys selling ‘Manga Thenga Pattani Sundal’ a unique recipe of Sundal (Peas) generally sold only in the beach. As the evening fades and the dark sets in, the rotating light from the lighthouse gives you the signal to start packing off – and you do so reluctantly only to come again another day.

Moving away from beaches, the next thing which rings in your ear when you think of Madras is its moorings with classical music. Come December and the “Season” arrives with its characteristic charm. For the uninitiated the “Season” here alludes to the ‘Carnatic Music’ season. By the way Madras or today’s Chennai has 3 seasons. – Summer, Hot Summer and Music Season 🙂 🙂  So during this music season Carnatic musicians of all hue descend into the city and spread across 3 weeks play/sing “notes” of their lives in an attempt to get noticed. So much so even if you are a top notch Carnatic musician with acclaim elsewhere, you are a nobody until you have performed in this capital during the “Season” that too in the evening slots. Aspiring musicians pay money to sabhas to earn a slot in the mornings/afternoons just to be a part of the “Season”, I am told. Apart from performances, old mamas mostly and sometimes accompanied by mamis saunter across in the early mornings with mufflers and shawls (the only time in the year when you have to take these wear out in Madras 🙂 ) to different sabhas to understand the nuances of Kalyani Ragam and its variant Yaman Kalyani or other such purists’ lookouts in “lecture and demonstration” sessions.  For lesser mortals there is always the difference between Sada bajji and Mulaga bajji to worry about 🙂 🙂  During the “Season” for many, the filter Kapi (coffee) at the canteen outside is as important as the ‘Kaapi’ raga rendition inside the auditorium. Just cannot afford to miss both.

The filter Kapi brings us to the next attraction of Madras which is the food.  The city is a vegetarian’s paradise. For all those who get carried away by the Idli/Dosa/Vada/ Sambhar dished out at the various so called south Indian joints all over the country, you haven’t tasted the real thing yet if you haven’t tried all these in Ratna Café or Saravana Bhavan or Sangeetha or that Murugan Idli Kadai in Madras. Today joints like Saravana Bhavan are in the forefront of transporting the “Madras culture” to various cities across the globe where our bright IT Engineers are writing codes to glory.

Any talk of “Madras culture” is incomplete without reference to Mylapore located at the heart of the city.  Time permitting, I don’t miss a visit to Mylapore when in Chennai even today.  The long walks to Kapaleeswarar temple via Luz from my house, the compulsory visit to Giri Traders to catch up with latest on classical music, the mandatory check at the Ambika Appalam store for any new item ( 🙂 ), Coffee at Saravana Bhavan and the walk along Nageswara Rao Park smelling the Amrutanjan in the air and shopping at Rex Fashions are things which are etched well in my memory.

As I jog my memory further the other thing I enjoyed in the 2 years I stayed in Madras was catching up with Tamil plays in the weekends. The Mylapore Fine Arts was at walking distance and was popular with all the leading troupes of the day like Crazy Mohan, S.V.Shekhar, Y.G. Mahendran, Poornam Viswanathan,…  I am talking of a time when there were still takers for Drama.

Essay on Madras and no reference to the notorious autowallas??? I am told that “Amma” has been successful in implementing electronic meters in auto rickshaws this year and I hope the system is working. For years, one had to put up with the tyranny of autowallas in Madras. Those days when the train reached Basin Bridge, I used to brace myself for the fight with the autowalla at Madras Central Station. The autowallas knew to outsmart the passengers every time and ask for more. “Konjam Meterukku mela pottu kudunga, Sir” (Sir please pay more than the meter) used to be one jarring line one hated to hear. And the reasons for asking more than the meter were ingenious.  “Sir the destination is very far, Sir the distance is too short, Sir I will have to return empty, Sir you have 3 luggage pieces, Sir there the road is not good, Sir it is raining, Sir there is no light in that area and too dark, Sir the meter is not working, Sir prices have gone up, Sir Naan Pulla Kutti Kaaran (I have children),….!!!”  🙂 🙂 Invariably we were asked to fork out for the ills of everybody else!!! The advent of Call taxis and now the E-meters hopefully have put an end to this Autowalla tyranny.

I can keep writing on many other aspects of “Madrasitis” like the annual test match at Chepauk during Pongal, the influence of Kodambakkam aka films on people, the day long shopping by women for Silk Sarees at Mambalam, Woodlands Drive-in – the Salespeople’s’ adda, the poster culture eulogizing film stars then and politicians now (Witness “Amma” being elevated to a Durga one day Ganga/ Parvathi/Queen Mary/Radha/Kaali/Mother Teresa/,.. some other day in posters and cut-outs plastered all over the city) and so on.

This post has gone too long. But then 375th Birthday for a city doesn’t come every other day. Wishing our very own Madras (I’m not a fan of this changing names of cities when a party comes to power) while being 375 Not out many more runs and a long,…. innings!!!

Postscript:  People in Madras are known for their tongue ’n cheek wit and humour. This is one sample:

James Bond comes out of British Airways at Chennai, goes to his waiting driver and says “I’m Bond, James Bond. James to you”.

For which the driver replies “I’m Subramaniam, Bala Subramaniam. Balls to you…”

🙂 🙂 🙂